8 Secret Tips For Packing Only A Carry-On

Dear Readers: You’ve heard me reference my good friend and travel buddy, Ruth, but I’ve yet to properly introduce her. Let’s change that today.

Ruth McNulty, originally from Scotland, traveled to New Zealand in 2008 with the intention of staying a year  (6 months on the North Island and 6 months on the South Island). Then she’d planned to explore Australia for a few months before heading back home to Scotland. What she didn’t anticipate was falling in love with New Zealand and making it her home. Ironically, she finally just made it to Australia for the first time last year.

In the summer of 2014, I met Ruth (virtually, anyway) through a non-profit organization I was working with. Ruth, a mental health nurse, had volunteered to help us with our online support groups. Three months later, we found ourselves roommates at a convention in Calgary, Canada, where you’d have thought we’d been friends for years. We quickly developed weird inside jokes about Canadian wildlife and the many uses of dryer sheets. Soon enough, we began discussing ideas for future adventures, and shortly thereafter we were on our first trip together: a three-week adventure around Bali.

In Bali, we hiked a volcano, learned to scuba dive with sea turtles, and took authentic Balinese cooking classes. Since then, we’ve toured the White House, climbed the Statue of Liberty, waited in line at 5 AM to see the Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon, pigged out on cheesesteaks in Philadelphia, toured a Scotch distillery in the middle of Scotland, and so much more.  

Not only is Ruth one of my favorite travel buddies, but she’s also highly qualified in the mental health field, and a seasoned solo traveler. It’s for these three reasons I have asked her to be part of the conversation here on Her Bags Were Packed. She will share her own adventures, travel tips, and ways we can all practice self-care.

White House Tour - How To Pack a Carry On

To kick things off, we are sharing our tips for packing everything you need in just a carry-on, even when traveling for an extended period of time.

Most airlines these days charge passengers for their luggage - and those charges are no joke.  This is especially common with budget airlines like Wow, Frontier, etc. They offer you a cheap flight (often as low as $15 or $30 one way), but then you have to pay anywhere from $30-$100 for each piece of luggage, other than your “personal item” (these have to be small enough to fit under the seat in front of you). This can quickly make you feel like your great deal was actually a scam. But what if you could take advantage of that $15 or $30 flight and avoid those extra luggage fees?

Traveling might start to feel cheaper than staying home...

We know packing everything you need in a super small bag that fits under the seat in front of you can be daunting at first -- may even seem impossible -- but that’s precisely why we’re sharing our packing secrets and processes with you.

Ultimately, we believe if Ruth can fly to South East Asia for six weeks with a bag that must weigh less than 7 kg (or 15 lbs); and Catherine can survive a month in the United Kingdom and Iceland with a bag restricted to 17x13x10 inches and weighing no more than 10 kg (or 22 lbs); then we believe that you, too, can pull off only a carry-on (or even a personal item) for your next adventure.

Pack Outfits That Are Adaptable.

Ruth: Keep it simple and keep it matching. All the clothes I pack can be mixed, matched and layered. I choose mostly dark colours as I know I will be hand washing every few days, and light colours, which look pretty at the start, quickly become dull and off colour a week or so in. I also choose light-weight fabrics that don’t crease or need ironing, and dry super quick.

Catherine: There are many ways to keep your clothing options simplified and limited. If you’ve never heard of capsule wardrobes, check out this resource from my friend, Megan Starbuck.

I keep my wardrobe simple while traveling by choosing one sweater or light jacket that matches the majority of my clothing (avoiding the need for multiples), one pair of pants, a pair of shorts, a pair of gym shorts (these also usually double for my bathing suit), one bra, a sports bra, underwear and 3-6 shirts that match both the pants and shorts.

Additionally, I bring one or two versatile sundresses that are comfortable for sightseeing or throwing over my bathing suit but can also be dressed up with a scarf or sweater when I want to look nice in the evening.

Plan For The Flight.

Catherine: Wear any of your bulkier items (jacket, shoes, scarves) onto the plane and have a small lightweight drawstring or tote bag easily accessible in your carry-on. No one cares how many bags you have once you're on the plane (as long as you're subtle).  So after boarding, pull out the items you want to have available while flying and take off the bulky items to shove into the tote bag. Additionally, if needed, you can shove extra items into your coat pockets.

Packing Cases (Or Compression Bags) Are Your Best Friend!

how to pack a carry on - her bags were packed

Ruth: Not only do packing cases keep everything tight and compact, they also help keep you organized. I had four packing cases with me on my six-week trip to South East Asia, and I knew exactly which items were in each case. When I needed something, I didn’t have to go rummaging through my entire backpack creating chaos.

An added bonus was how easy the packing cases made packing and unpacking at each location throughout the trip. Whenever I got to a new location, I could easily take the cases out of my bag, set them in my locker, and immediately feel like I was no longer living out of a suitcase. When it was time to move on, the packing cases popped straight back into my backpack and off I went.

Leave The Accessories At Home

Catherine: Not only is jewelry something that can potentially attract unwanted attention from thieves, but it also takes up unnecessary space in your luggage. When you are only traveling with a carry-on, remind yourself that you should only be packing essentials.

The Same Goes For Cosmetics.

Catherine: Do you really need hair spray, serum, gel, body butter, and five different shades of lipstick?  If it’s not something you use everyday, you’ll be just fine without. If you don’t think you can survive without it, consider purchasing trial size containers of your essentials at a pharmacy once you’ve reached your destination. Not only will it save you space in your luggage, but it may be cheaper than paying to check your bag (which you will have to do if you bring a bunch of liquids). You could also use this as a fun opportunity to try a new product in the place you’re visiting.

Shoes… Shoes… Shoes.

Ruth: On my last trip, I took 2 pairs of shoes -- one pair of Jandels (flip flops, thongs, etc) and one pair of trainers. Jandels are essential because I’m virtually a Kiwi now, and no self-respecting Kiwi wears anything but Jandels most of the time. I can do most activities comfortably in Jandels, and my feet and legs aren’t going to get sore walking for miles in them. However, I knew I would be doing some jungle trekking, so I brought along an old worn out pair of trainers (sneakers, tennis shoes, etc.) that I then threw out at the end of my trip.

I wasn't planning on going anywhere fancy where I needed high heels or pretty sandals, so I didn’t take any. When deciding how many shoes to take, remember they take up a significant amount of room and weight. Think carefully about how much you need them, what you actually need them for, and if you are used to walking in them.

Catherine: This one is hard for people because we believe we need multiple pairs of shoes: high heels for dinner, sneakers for walking around during the day, flip flops for the beach, and a nice pair of in-between shoes for a casual dinner or night out. But how likely is it that you are really going to be going out for fancy nights out while traveling, and how will it actually impact your experience if, on those rare occasions, the shoes you are wearing are not showy? It won’t. So find a pair of shoes that can work well for casual and dressy occasions. I like to go with a black pair of TOMS. They work with everything from my yoga pants to my sundresses.

You Can And Should Do Laundry While Traveling.

Ruth: You do not need a new set of underwear for each day of your trip. You need clean ones, obviously, but you do not need more than 4-5 pairs for a 6 week trip. I took 5 pairs and 2 bras. This way, I wasn’t carrying around excess clothes taking up room and weight in my bag. I generally hand-washed whatever I had taken off when I jumped into a shower.

Catherine: If you don’t want to hand-wash your laundry, that’s ok. While I appreciate the ease of Tide laundry detergent packets (found in the travel/trial section of pharmacies and Target) for hand-washing laundry in the bathroom sink, it is also usually just as easy to gain access to a washer and dryer.  Most hostels or Airbnbs will have access to one. If not, it won’t be difficult to find a local to send your laundry out with or to track down a laundromat. While we were in Ubud, Bali we sent our laundry out to be cleaned by a local woman. For under five dollars, she picked it up, washed it, dried it, folded it, and returned it to us. Not only was this super convenient for us, but it also allowed us to support a local family’s income.

Leave It Behind.

Ruth: Everything I pack is dispensable. Nothing I take with me has to come home with me. If it gets lost in the hostel laundry, worn out, or torn climbing over rocks at the beach, I am not upset. In fact, I pack several old clothing items with the intention of leaving them, leaving room in my bag for items found while shopping local markets.

Catherine: Yes! I love coming home with less than what I started with. It’s all part of my mission to live and travel lighter. One way I do this is by packing old underwear and socks that I can toss at the end of a trip. I will also leave behind for future guests at the hostel or Airbnb any remaining toiletries or random items I won’t use in my daily life but brought along specifically for this trip. This has included everything from shampoos, lotions, laundry detergent, and tampons, to cheap flip-flops, sunglasses, and gloves.

That’s really it -- these 8 tricks are how we take advantage of cheap flights and avoid hundreds of dollars in baggage fees each year.

What do you think, have you tried any of them before? Let us know in the comments which tip you think is easiest and which tip is hardest.

Note: Every airline is different. Some let you take a regular (overhead sized) carry-on for free and others only allow a small personal item (must fit under the seat in front of you). Make sure to read your airline's policies carefully and find out what exactly the size and weight restrictions are on your free luggage.  If you'd like a second set of eyes to review and confirm the policy, I am happy to help.